We all read The Three Musketeers as children, don’t we? And we play make-believe, and watch the movies (and the fact itself that they keep making more of them must mean something), and go on to read Twenty Years Later, and perhaps The Man in the Iron Mask – but this is already where “we” split into two camps, roughly speaking: those who leave behind Dumas as yet another childhood pleasure, and those who do not.
I belong to the second kind – and I must say that it happened perhaps less out of a true love of Dumas’s novels, and more because of Dumas himself. I think that what made me a Grown Dumasian was a rather unlikely Illustrated Life of Dumas, that I found among my father’s books. Why he even had it, I’m not sure. Well, Dad was the one who told me Musketeers tales as bedtime stories, and once in a while didn’t mind playing Athos or Richelieu in make-believe games, and gave me an unabridged translation to read all by myself when I was… oh, I don’t know – nine or ten, I think. Still, I don’t remember ever seeing him read Dumas himself. He must have as a boy (the two-volume translation had clearly seen some wear) – but I’d have thought him a Childhood Dumasian… except for the Illustrated Life.
That was a more recent book, published when Dad was in his early forties, and yet it was not bought for me – witness the fact that I only chanced on it by myself quite a few years later… and read it, and was fascinated.
My father lived right in the middle of a historical novel,
Dumas’s identically named son wrote – and he was quite right. The elder Dumas didn’t just write adventure, but actively sought it for himself by traveling, joining revolutions and uprisings, building castles… one gets the impression that putting his stories on paper wasn’t enough. He had a kind of compulsion to bring them to some kind of three-dimensional life. At one point he even bought a theatre, the Théàtre Historique, and ran it, so he’d have a (very active) hand in staging the adaptations of his own novels… And by all accounts what he produced were lavish, colourful affairs. And all the while, he kept writing at a frantic pace, penning dozens of novels and plays, juggling collaborations and contracts – at times several simultaneously.
Yet, this is no ultimately sad story of an overworked scribbler, squeezed to the last drop by unscrupulous publishers – like, say, Italy’s Emilio Salgari. On the contrary – by reading his own writing and what others wrote about him, one gathers a sense of an almost unbelievably full life, rather frenzied but eager, and joyful – in spite of a number of troubles.
In fairness, one never quite knows just how truthful he is about himself. Can we believe him when he tells of arriving in Paris at eighteen, a penniless lad in search of adventure and advancement, and managing to find himself a duel to fight on the very first day? It does sound suspiciously like young d’Artagnan, doesn’t it? Did a real life incident shape the novel’s beginning, or did an older Dumas tweak truth in later years to make it look that way? Hard to tell – but, in the end, not very important. Either way, the weaving together of truth and fiction is nothing short of fascinating. In the end, what counts, is that the Great Alexandre did his best to turn his life into a novel.
Dumas Père certainly wasn’t the only writer who tried to paint his own life with the colours of his fiction – but what makes him especially remarkable to me, and made me go on to read his works and about his life, is that he largely succeeded.